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Beginner gardening: How a plant is grown from seed and the easiest plants to grow for beginners

Ferry-Morse Home Gardening Blog | September 2021

How a plant is grown from seed blog piece header image: image shows a seed germinating and growing in soil.

A seed germinates and grows in the soil.

Have you ever wondered how to grow a plant from seed?

While it seems pretty straightforward, sometimes the results are disappointing for new gardeners. So what’s the secret to "starting a seed"?

To give you a better understanding, we're here to break down the process of seed germination and provide a list of plants you can easily grow indoors from seed! So let’s begin.

Let’s start with seed structure

A seed is a neat little package containing everything it needs to remain viable and eventually grow.

Specifically, a seed is the ovule of a flower fertilized by pollen that can grow into a new plant. Seeds consist of three parts, the embryo, endosperm, and seed coat. Learn more about seed structure.

Anatomy of a corn seed: consists of endosperm, embryo, epicotyl, hypocotyl, radicle, seed coat and cotyledon.

An illustrative example of seed structure using the anatomy of a corn seed.

Now, let’s move on to seed types.

The different types of seeds

Seeds must maintain some moisture within to remain viable. The degree to which seeds can tolerate drying is what differentiates them into categories known as orthodox, recalcitrant, and intermediate.

Orthodox seeds can tolerate drying and freezing—and remain viable for more than one year. Examples include beans, cashew, cayenne pepper, corn, peas, sunflowers, and tomatoes. A fun fact is there are well-documented cases of orthodox seeds sprouting after hundreds and even thousands of years!

Recalcitrant seeds are short-lived and usually larger than orthodox seeds. Requiring high moisture content, they cannot tolerate drying and definitely won’t survive freezing. These desiccation-sensitive seeds include avocado, cacao, coconut, mango, maples, oaks, rubber, tea, and walnuts.

Intermediate seeds form the category between orthodox and recalcitrant. Examples include citrus, coffee, and papaya. 

What is seed germination, and how does it work?

Germination is the moment when a seed begins to grow into a plant. Five things can affect seed germination: air, water, light, temperature, and salinity. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Air

Have you ever noticed how loose and light seed starting mix is? It’s made that way to promote gas exchange.

Like other organisms, seeds respire and require a planting medium that allows them to take up oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

Proper drainage promotes gas exchange. So, a good seed starting mix includes sand or perlite amendments to help the planting mixture dry out between waterings because seeds sitting in excessive water eventually suffocate.

Water

Water is required for imbibition, the first stage of seed germination. It causes the seed to swell, softens the seed coat, and gives it a wrinkly appearance.

Imbibition breaks the seed coat, allowing water to enter, triggering the metabolic processes necessary for germination. Consistent watering that keeps the planting medium moist (but not soggy) is ideal for germinating most seeds.

An exception is aquatic plants because the seeds of underwater and floating-type plants need to be submerged in water to germinate. 

Light

Some seeds require dark, while others require light to germinate.

Think of it this way: In nature, gravity pulls larger, heavier seeds down into the dark soil. So, they require dark conditions to germinate. Smaller, lighter seeds stay near the soil’s surface, requiring some light to germinate.

Reading seed packets for instructions provides valuable information about planting depth.

Temperature

Seeds germinate best at their native temperature range. So, you might be wondering if being a successful gardener requires knowing the native origins of every seed you want to plant. Thankfully it does not, and here’s why.

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, a good germination chart, and seed packet instructions make finding the correct temperature range for seed germination a super-easy process.

Keep in mind that a too-cold planting medium can cause seeds to rot. A heat mat combined with a Jiffy greenhouse can provide the right environment for germination indoors. Outdoors, clear plastic can warm the soil. Just remove it after seedlings emerge.

Salinity

In some regions, soil and water salinity is high. Unfortunately, salts can prevent germination by inhibiting seeds’ water uptake. When all other conditions for germination are optimal, but seeds still aren’t germinating, then high salinity levels might be the problem.

You can use supplies and other equipment to promote seed germination

Getting a seed to germinate can be a rewarding experience! And with the support of a small collection of supplies and equipment, you can be germinating seeds in no time — be it in your home or outdoors.

Lighting

A seed’s light requirements must be met to germinate. But, like we mentioned before, not all seeds will need light to germinate. Check your seed packet to be sure.

Still, once a seed has germinated and sprouted into a seedling, your seedling will need light to keep growing.

Insufficient lighting results in weak and leggy seedlings. Grow lights provide excellent supplemental lighting, especially in indoor environments lacking enough light from the sun.

Humidity

If the air in your home is dry, cover seedlings with polyethylene plastic. Or buy a seed starting kit that comes with a plastic lid. It’s important to keep seeds and seedlings hydrated—but not sitting in water. Excessive water causes damping-off, which is a fungal disease that kills seedlings.

Jiffy peat pellet seed starting greenhouse with some started tomato seeds inside.

You can use a seed starting greenhouse in order to keep your growing medium moist, which will help seeds germinate.

Planting medium

Use a soilless mix or peat pellets, not garden soil.

OK, you might be thinking that if the garden’s soil is where transplants will eventually live, why shouldn’t I germinate seeds in it? Well, destructive disease organisms present in garden soil will kill your seedlings. Think about that for a minute.

While you can sterilize garden soil by baking and other methods, picking up a bag of professionally formulated seed starting mix or pellets will save you a lot of trouble, including keeping stinky soil-baking odors out of your home!

Biodegradable planting pots 

You can germinate seeds in just about any container that holds seed starting mix and provides drainage. All you have to do is fill it three-quarters full with planting medium, sprinkle your seeds over it, cover per instructions on the seed packet, and add water.

However, peat pots and pellets allow you to germinate, grow, and transplant seedlings directly into your garden from one container, increasing your chances of success! After all, no one wants to waste valuable gardening time hunting for odd-sized plastic tubs and old egg cartons.

If using pots for indoor gardening, a good rule of thumb is to sow 10 to 12 herb seeds per pot and then wait to separate them at transplant time. Since most herbs transplant well, this shouldn’t be a problem. For larger seeds, sow two per pot and then thin to one seedling after they emerge.

Jiffy biodegradable seed starting peat pots, all holding young flower and vegetable plants awaiting to be transplanted outdoors.

Jiffy biodegradable seed starting peat pots, all holding young flower and vegetable plants awaiting to be transplanted outdoors.

Now that you know how a plant is grown from seed, are you ready to give it a try?

You can visit this article on 'How to start a backyard garden from seed' to learn more.

In the meantime, here is a list of seeds that should germinate and grow with ease:

These seeds grow into root-sensitive seedlings — you’ll want to either sow directly outdoors or germinate them in biodegradable pots indoors:

Here is a list of the easiest plants you can grow from seed:

You won’t be a beginner for long!

Learning to germinate seeds successfully is the foundation of becoming an accomplished gardener. Please be patient with yourself as you master the techniques presented in this article. And as always, we are here to support you in your journey. Happy germinating!

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2 comments

  • T.A. WrightSep 21, 2021

    Great information condensed but with enough depth and variety to be very informative and entertaining.

  • TonySep 21, 2021

    Concise guide with authoritative tone and sound no nonsense information at an understandable level for the newbie and sound information for the experienced

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